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Hun Sen prepares to cement his dynasty

Cambodian strongman is grooming his eldest son to take over leadership of the country

Joseph Benny

Joseph Benny

Updated: June 26, 2020 11:32 AM GMT
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Hun Sen prepares to cement his dynasty

Royal Cambodian Armed Forces deputy commander-in-chief Lt. Gen. Hun Manet listens to the national anthem during a ceremony to deploy 290 Chinese military trucks at the National Olympic Stadium in Phnom Penh on June 18. (Photo: AFP)

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Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia for 35 years as if in a dictatorship, is keen to pass on the baton to his eldest son to perpetuate a dynasty in the one-party state.

The 67-year-old prime minister said he is grooming his eldest son, Hun Manet, 43, to take over leadership of the country, reports said on June 23. But he has no plans to discontinue his authoritarian rule for at least another decade.

Hun Sen acknowledged that whether his son ultimately becomes prime minister “rests with voters.”

“First, within the party — whether it can accept his candidacy or not — and secondly, he needs to be elected by the people,” Radio Free Asia quoted Hun Sen as saying.

The Supreme Court of Cambodia dissolved the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in November 2017, alleging a plot to overthrow the government.

Hun Sen followed up on the political front by silencing the media and human rights activists before winning all 125 seats in parliament in the July 2018 general election.

During an inspection of the construction site for the new Phnom Penh International Airport on June 22, Hun Sen vowed that his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) would rule the country for as long as a century.

The CPP is planning a long innings and recently constructed the party’s headquarters at a cost of US$40 million. Hun Sen called the new building “an investment for the next 50 to 100 years.”

As CPP president, Hun Sen had earlier handpicked Hun Manet for the position of the party’s central youth leader. Hun Manet is already a member of the party’s standing committee along with 34 other party veterans.

Despite his relative youth, Hun Manet is a three-star general, holding the posts of deputy commander-general of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, army commander, commander of the anti-terrorism special forces and deputy commander of bodyguards.

Poor human rights record

Human rights violations became rampant in Cambodia following the national election in 2018. The number of political prisoners increased, while key opposition members were put behind bars or fled the country to avoid arrest. Authorities began to criminalize involvement with the main opposition party.

On Jan. 6, 2019, an amendment to the Law on Political Parties gave Hun Sen unfettered power to decide which of the initial 118 banned senior opposition members could regain their political and civil rights, which could only be restored if the individual first submitted a request to Hun Sen.

According to US-based Human Rights Watch, authorities issued over 147 arbitrary summonses against CNRP members between January and May 2019.

The government’s clampdown on the media also continued. Many independent newspapers and radio outlets pulled down their shutters or were sold to ruling party members. Social media was brought under control with a law passed in 2018 to regulate "publication controls of website and social media processing via internet."

China’s influence

China is Cambodia’s largest foreign investor and has close political and security cooperation with Phnom Penh. Hun Sen enjoys strong backing from China, which has pledged 4 billion yuan (US$588 million) in aid to Cambodia from 2019 to 2021. China bolstered its loans with an additional 10 agreements under the Belt and Road Initiative.

In September 2019, a UN Human Rights Council resolution failed to put meaningful pressure on Cambodia to improve its rights record, just like in 2017.

In July 2019, the US House of Representatives passed the Cambodia Democracy Act of 2019, which seeks to sanction top Cambodian officials implicated in human rights abuses.

International efforts have been no match for Hun Sen’s descent into authoritarianism and dynastic rule in the midst of human rights violations and social injustice in Cambodia, where an estimated 256,800 people or 1.65 percent of the population are enslaved, according to the 2016 Global Slavery Index.

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